March 16, 2010

Saco's old dump starts new life


— By

click image to enlarge

Courtesy rendering... An artist's rendering of a idea for redevelopment along Kennebunk's Main Street.

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Players on the Velocity soccer team of the Premier league practice on one of the athletic fields on what was once the city dump in Saco, Thursday May 22, 2008.

Additional Photos Below

Staff Writer

SACO — On his daily walks through some of the 247 acres of city-owned land off Foss Road with his mixed Lab, Blue, Brian Espe has seen foxes, wild turkeys, beaver, egrets and plenty of other wildlife.

The land is a mix of woods and wetlands, grassy hills and level ground. There is a pond recently stocked with bass and a large complex of playing fields that opened last year, where dozens of children play soccer on weekends. Another set of playing fields is in the works for next year.

But Espe also can recall a time several decades ago when the area was a dumping ground for local tanneries and for all the municipal trash produced in Saco.

''I remember when there were open barrels of sludge,'' he said.

It was almost 20 years ago that the federal government named a mound of industrial waste in the woods behind the city of Saco's landfill a Superfund site, the designation reserved for some of the nation's most contaminated toxic waste sites.

Since then, both the dump and the nearby municipal landfill in use until 1988 have been capped with rubber membranes and covered with thick layers of clay and soil. While those managing the cleanup of this land say the pollution has been under control for some time, a decade-old plan for the conversion of this land into a center for recreation and wildlife is just being realized.

Not long ago, nature enthusiasts like Espe might have had little company when they ventured onto the city's land off Foss Road. These days, more than 100 soccer players and their parents sometimes gather on a half-dozen playing fields recently built on the old city landfill, across the road from the Saco transfer station.

Saco Parks and Recreation Director Joe Hirsch said that number will double with the completion of another set of fields by next spring.

The first set of playing fields is built on a site that never suffered the same level of pollution as the industrial dump. Hirsch said the garbage beneath the fields cannot be seen or smelled but that operating athletic fields on top of a retired landfill does require certain precautions.

The recreation department cannot dig into the field to mount goal posts or any other structures, Hirsch said, because this could potentially penetrate the rubber lining used to seal the landfill. Also, Hirsch said his staff cannot use fertilizer or herbicides on the fields because the area is monitored for groundwater contamination, and the addition of chemicals could throw off test results.

Ed Hathaway is a project manager with the Environmental Protection Agency who has overseen the conversion of the Saco Superfund site from a brownfield location into a recreational area during the last 10 years. He said annual water tests show the site has stabilized and is not leaching contaminants into adjoining areas.

Hathaway has been involved with several similar projects around New England, and said the one in Saco represents the most ambitious transformation of what once was a contaminated site. ''This is the most complete and aggressive reuse project I've seen,'' he said.

The fields are the most visible recreational amenities that have been built on the old dump site to date. But the city plans to develop recreational facilities on each part of the site, with different uses depending on the level of contamination. Active uses such as the athletic fields are confined to areas of low contamination, while more heavily polluted sites are reserved for passive recreation such as bird-watching and walking.

''This is a Superfund site but we want to encourage people to walk out here,'' Hirsch said.

Members of the public are even welcome to stroll up the grassy knoll that covers what was the industrial dump. The contaminants beneath the hill were sealed with an impermeable sheet of rubber, which in turn is covered by up to four feet of clay, sand and soil. Pipes project from the hill to vent methane gas and numerous test wells allow city officials to test nearby groundwater. The $6 million project was funded with federal Superfund money and the city of Saco.

Long-term plans for the dump site, as outlined in a 1998 reuse report, include wooded trails linking this property to another 110 city-owned acres surrounding Saco Middle School on Route 112. These trails would be open to runners, horseback riders, cross-country skiers and other non-motorized forms of transport.

Other portions of the land would be set aside for wildlife and people, such as Espe, who enjoy watching for new life in the old dump.

''There's a hawk I see almost every day,'' he said.

Staff Writer Seth Harkness can be contacted at 282-8225 or at:

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Players on the Velocity soccer team of the Premier league practice on one of the athletic fields on what was once the city dump in Saco, Thursday May 22, 2008.


Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)